Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God — Understanding Dialect

One of the most difficult aspects of the Honors English III Summer Reading assignment — Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston — is understanding the dialogue, as the dialogue is written mostly in dialect. Dialect, as you may know already, is a regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, and/or vocabulary. Below, I’ve given some examples and explanations of each of these dialectical components using examples from the first chapter of the novel.

Pronunciation

  • An example of dialectical pronunciation in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the way that Pheoby says “Lawd” on pg. 3. “Lawd” is, of course, “Lord.” (This is an example of dropping the intervocalic /r/.)
  • Pronouns are prominently rendered in dialect in this novel as well: Y’all (you all), Ah (I), Ah’m (I’m), yo’ (your), mah (my), youse (you are), yuh (you). All of these pronouns can be found on pg. 3–4.

Grammar

  • Altered verb forms are a primary characteristic of the dialect in this novel. Pheoby says to Janie on pg. 5, “Ah knowed you’d be hongry.” “Ah knowed” is “I knew”; the verb “know,” an irregular verb, is regularized by adding an -ed to indicate past tense (instead of the irregular conjugation, “knew”).
  • Negatives don’t follow standard written English conventions, either. In standard written English, double negatives (“There isn’t no other way to fix this.”) sometimes work out to a positive (“There’s only one way to fix this.”) However, in this novel, double (or, multiple) negatives usually serve to emphasize the negative. For example, on pg. 5, Janie says, “Good Lawd, Pheoby! ain’t you never goin’ tuh gimme dat lil rations you brought me?” (Good Lord, Pheoby, aren’t you going to give me the food you brought me?) Janie is hungry and knows that Pheoby brought her something to eat and is wondering when Pheoby is going to give her the food.

Vocabulary

  • As this novel was written in 1937, there will be vocabulary that is unfamiliar to some modern readers, and the dialectical vocabulary may present additional challenges. But if the reader understands the context of the vocabulary, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary will be easier. For example, on pg. 3, the porch sitters express curiousity about where Janie has been. In the midst of this conversation, Pheoby tells the porch sitters that she’s going to take some food over to Janie. The reader already knows that it’s evening when Janie walks by (pg. 1, “The sun was gone…”). And so when Mrs. Sumpkins offers to walk to Janie’s house with Pheoby, using the excuse, “It’s sort of duskin’ down dark,” (pg. 4), the reader understands “duskin’ down dark” to mean that it’s literally getting dark.
  • On pg. 3, the porch sitters are discussing Janie’s absence as well as the fact that Janie ran away with Tea Cake, a “young boy.” Pheoby is defending Janie, but Lulu Moss says, “’Tain’t no use in your tryin’ to cloak no ole woman lak Janie Starks…” Modern readers would probably be familiar with the word “cloak” as a noun, meaning a large jacket or cape worn over other clothing. However, Lulu Moss is using cloak as a verb: “to cloak.” She is accusing Pheoby of trying to protect Janie.

As I wrote in the Summer Reading instructions, if you are finding yourself inordinately challenged by the dialect, I suggest that you listen to an audio recording of the novel as you read. (I found the entire audio book on YouTube.)